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Why Do Americans and Brits Have Different Accents?

As the old adage goes, “Americans and the British are two people divided by a common language.”  But how do two countries that speak the same language and are historically linked sound so different?

In 1776, whether you were fighting for American independence or swearing allegiance to King George III, your pronunciation would have been much the same.  At that time, Americans and British didn’t yet split.  Given this historical linguistic fact it’s surprising that so many movies, even those produced by reputable education companies, get it so wrong.  The Patriots and the Redcoats spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queen’s English.  The standard British accent has undergone drastic changes during the past two centuries, while the typical American accent has only changed subtly.

Now it’s time to get a little technical.  English accents can be divided into two main groups when it comes to pronounces /r/, rhotic and non-rhotic.  To generalize, rhotic speech pronounces the /r/ in all instances.  Non-rhotic speech tends to only pronounce the /r/ if it comes after a vowel.  For example, rhotic speakers pronounce the /r/ in words like “hard” and “winter” while non-rhotic speakers don’t. However, today, non-rhotic speech is the standard throughout most of England.  For example, most modern Brits would pronounce “hard as “hahd” and “winter” as “wintuh.” Historically, English has been a rhotic, regardless if it was spoken in England or the American colonies.

The linguistic shift was mostly a result of political and societal influences.  During the time of the American Revolution, non-rhotic speech came in to usage among the upper class in southern England around London.  John Algeo in The Cambridge History of the English Language” (Cambridge University Press, 2001) explains that the new upper-class was looking for a way to distinguish themselves from commoners.

As a result of this social trend towards non-rhotic speech a proliferation of orthoepists and elocution teachers ensued.  New “experts” devised standard for ‘correct pronunciation, compiled pronunciation dictionaries, and started expensive and private tutoring sessions.  The result was a culture that valued non-rhotic speech as a mark of being a member of the upper-class. Eventually this new style of speech developed and became standardized.  Tonya, it’s refered to as  “Received Pronunciation” and is the standard accent across Britain.  However, England is known for its many regional dialects.

Why then are there some US cities in which people use non-rhotic speech?  Algeo explains that cities like New York and Boston were “under the strongest influence by the British elite” after the Revolutionary War.